Memories of Charles Hendrickson

May 25, 2021
Charles Hendrickson and his Opus 45, First Lutheran Church, Saint Peter, Minnesota (photo credit: Kris Kathmann/Connect Business Magazine)
Charles Hendrickson and his Opus 45, First Lutheran Church, Saint Peter, Minnesota (photo credit: Kris Kathmann/Connect Business Magazine)

David Engen holds degrees in organ from St. Olaf College and the University of Iowa, and a master’s degree in software engineering from the University of St. Thomas. He has been in the organ business since 1970. He is currently president of Grandall & Engen, LLC, in Minneapolis where he shares duties with vice-president David Grandall.

Editor’s note: many of the organs mentioned in this article can be found with stoplists and pictures at the website of the Twin Cities Chapter of the American Guild of Organists.

Charles George Hendrickson, 85, died at his home in Saint Peter, Minnesota, on December 17, 2020. He was born June 10, 1935, in Willmar, Minnesota, to Roy and Frances (Eklund) Hendrickson. Roy Hendrickson was an attorney and member of the board of directors at Gustavus Adolphus College in Saint Peter, from which Charles graduated in 1957. His intent was to continue in nuclear physics, but he once admitted to me that during his time of graduate study at the University of Minnesota, aspects of nuclear physics were “beyond me.” He taught physics at the University of Wisconsin-Superior, Union University in Jackson, Tennessee, and Northeast State University, Tahlequah, Oklahoma.

I believe it was after his father’s death that his mother became secretary to the president of Gustavus Adolphus. It was she who introduced Charles to the woman he would marry, Birgitta Gillberg, a language teacher at Gustavus Adolphus and later at nearby Mankato State University. He taught physics at Mankato State, and he and Birgitta were married in Sweden in 1964. They had two sons: Eric and Andreas. Birgitta preceded him in death by two years.

In 1964 he started building his first organ in rented space in an old canning plant in Winthrop, an instrument for nearby First Lutheran Church. The three-manual organ of thirty-four ranks, which has since been enlarged, had the first Rückpositiv division in Minnesota. David N. Johnson, then of Saint Olaf College, played the dedication recital.


I first met Charles at about the time the Winthrop organ was completed in 1966. He was measuring pipes in the new Holtkamp organ (Job Number 1778) at my home church in Minneapolis, Westwood Lutheran Church, Saint Louis Park. He told me of the upcoming David Johnson recital at Winthrop, which I attended. I started working for him in 1970 and continued for much of the time until 1984.

Charles was a fan of the architect Mies van der Rohe and ascribed to his “less is more” philosophy (although in the shop we often changed it to “more is more”). Most of his designs with casework are simple boxes. He also much admired the work of the organbuilder Robert Noehren, whose unit organs on all-electric action were a big influence.

More than one hundred organs came from the Hendrickson shop, ranging in size from a one-stop, one-rank portable “organetto” (Opus 19) to his “magnum” Opus 92 of four manuals and seventy ranks for Wayzata Community Church in Wayzata, Minnesota. Most of his organs were built for churches, but many were built for colleges (both concert halls and practice rooms), and several were built for individuals. There was a series of three three-stop portativ organs built for touring groups, the first for the Saint Olaf Choir, designed to fit through the door of a Greyhound bus.

Many organs had mechanical action, and in general the smaller organs were unit organs on all-electric action. These followed the Noehren philosophy of unification, where octave unification was avoided if possible.

One of Charles’s notable innovations was the use of plywood Subbass pipes. Built in the shop, they were made of three-quarter-inch plywood. In the ravages of Minnesota’s wild seasonal humidity swings, almost every old organ we encountered had splits in the big pedal pipes. Plywood avoids this, and these pipes were used in virtually every organ. He also exclusively used aluminum for the façade pipes above 4′, made by Justin Matters of South Dakota.

Another unique feature of the small unit organs has to do with celeste and tierce stops. In a very small organ it is difficult to justify the expense of either of these. Both are typically the softest stops, and both can be either string or flute scale. We found that if the tierce is borrowed from the celeste (tuned flat instead of sharp), you can have both in a single stop by adding just a few more pipes. One tunes the tierce perfectly from middle C up, then tunes from there down for a pleasant flat celeste (beats tend to get too wild in that range if tuned to the perfect tierce). It is an inexpensive compromise that is of great benefit to a tiny organ.

Friends and collaborations

Some of the best organs to come from the shop during my time were designed in conjunction with friends who acted as consultants. Among those were Merrill N. (“Jeff”) Davis, III, of Rochester, Minnesota, and William B. Kuhlman of Luther College, Decorah, Iowa.

Both pushed Charles to some of his most inspired designs, visually and tonally. Opus 4 was a pair of positiv divisions added to a Wicks organ in memory of Jeff Davis’s first wife at the Congregational Church in LaCrosse, Wisconsin. In an acoustically dry room, these positivs pulled the sound of the enclosed Wicks into the church. This was but the first collaboration. Many other projects resulted in very unique and unusual instruments over the years.

Bill Kuhlman was behind what was to become the first mechanical-action organ constructed in Minnesota in the late twentieth century. This was a thirty-six-rank teaching organ for Luther College (Opus 10) in Decorah, Iowa. As a successful teacher, Bill had many students study on that organ who went on to careers in music.

Other consultants included Robert Kendall and Robert Thompson of Saint Olaf College and Kim Kasling, then of Mankato State University.

Significant instruments

I had personal experience and/or input in almost all of the organs from Opus 1 through Opus 70, and it would be tempting to tell stories of each one. Except for the three portativs, no two were alike. (Fritz Noack once told me that when you mass-produce organs, you have an opportunity to replicate your mistakes!)

One overriding memory I have is that every time we built a mechanical-action organ, the shop looked forward to building electric action. When we were lost in the wiring of electric-action instruments, we would long to build another tracker.

Luther College, Decorah, Iowa, Opus 10, two manuals, 36 ranks

After the Winthrop organ had launched the company (we cleaned and added to it some years later after a Christmas Eve fire), all organs through Opus 9 were built in the Hendrickson garage and backyard. Starting with the Luther College organ (Opus 10) the operation moved to the current shop location at the north end of Saint Peter in an industrial park. The shop was built during the winter of 1970–1971. During the first rainstorm in 1971 the skylights leaked, and several of us frantically covered the Luther windchests in the middle of the night to prevent damage.

There was a lot of overcompensation in design. The pallets were large, we had complex bleed holes in the channels, and we used foam slider seals. Having a heavy coupled action, it had optional electric couplers. The horizontal trumpet was on electric action and played at 16′, 8′, and 4′ on the Great and at 8′, 4′, and 2′ on the Pedal to create maximum “blast.” There were prepared stops in each division. Perhaps the most unusual feature was that the whole organ could be moved around Koren Chapel at Luther with an air flotation system by one person! Gerald Near wrote his Second Fantasy for the dedication concert.

Jensen-Noble Hall of Music was opened in late 1982 on the Luther campus, so the Hendrickson company was engaged to move the organ into a teaching studio in the spring and summer prior to the opening. Being the only employee left who had helped build it, I wound up in charge of disassembly and reinstallation. We were able to take what we had learned from building about a dozen tracker organs in the intervening years and apply those lessons to what became a successful renovation. Since there was no need for the flotation system in a studio, we removed it and built a new and more reliable pedal action in that space. Pallet openings and pallets were reduced in size, resulting in a lighter action that no longer needed electric couplers. The blast from the horizontal trumpet at multiple pitches was not needed in the smaller space, so the trumpet was placed on mechanical action and lower wind pressure, speaking from the Great channels. Three of the five prepared stops were added. It continues to function, fifty years after construction, as a teaching and practice organ under Bill Kuhlman’s successor, Gregory Peterson.

Saint John Lutheran Church, Owatonna, Minnesota, Opus 34, three manuals, 51 ranks

Saint John Lutheran Church is a huge A-frame building, but the typical front transepts are in the back balcony. Floor to ceiling windows in the balcony provide wonderful light, but the acoustic issues for a gallery organ are significant since glass does not reflect bass. Charles’s solution was to cantilever the main organ as far into the room as possible and to provide a very large Rückpositiv as well as a prominent horizontal trumpet.

Since there was virtually no unification on the manuals, I talked Charles into building slider windchests. We opted to try the Holtkamp slider chest design with all-electric magnets on the channels rather than pallets with pull-downs. Forty-five years later the organ continues to serve the church—as does Shirley Erickson, who was organist when the organ was installed!

Saints Peter and Paul Catholic Church, Mankato, Minnesota, Opus 35, three manuals, 59 ranks

Following right behind the 51-rank Owatonna organ, we tackled what would briefly become the largest mechanical-action organ in Minnesota. (The Fisk organ at House of Hope Presbyterian Church, Saint Paul, followed very soon thereafter.) Kim Kasling was consultant, and Jim Dorn was organist. An original plan for a high, stacked organ in the right front of the nave eventually became a balcony installation. Again, a large Rückpositiv was in the design, but the ancient church balcony could not hold its weight if placed in the normal location on the rail. It sits instead on the floor, right behind the keydesk, with new steel beams under the floor to hold the weight.

A huge Great division with two mixtures sits above a relatively small Swell, with Pedal split and across the back inside the organ. There are many pipes from the previous organ spread throughout, as well as a 32′ Bourdon from the old Soul’s Harbor organ in Minneapolis and a 16′ open wood diapason discarded from the Sipe rebuild of the organ at Christ United Methodist Church in Rochester, Minnesota. The church interior has been tastefully remodeled since the organ went in, and there is now less carpet than there had been.

First Lutheran Church, Saint Peter, Minnesota, Opus 45, two manuals (with a third coupler manual), 44 ranks

First Lutheran Church in Saint Peter was the Hendrickson family church. Founded in 1857 by Swedish immigrants, 164 years later it retains its Swedish roots, although services have been held in English for 100 years. It has always been closely connected with Gustavus Adolphus College, which is just a mile away. On Mother’s Day, May 13, 1962, the old church was struck by lightning and burned to the ground. Charles was already involved in organ renovations, and there was an existing organ fund.

The firm of Harold Spitznagel and Associates of Sioux Falls, South Dakota, designed the new church to replace the old one on land purchased on the edge of town. The first service was held in the new edifice on September 5, 1965. The sanctuary was half a cube, 76 feet on each side and 40 feet high topped with clerestory windows. The congregation did not want to suffer another fire, so this building is made of concrete and brick. As a result, the sanctuary has incredible acoustics for music.

To avoid having a temporary electronic organ, Charles assembled parts he had on hand into an eight-rank exposed organ that he leased temporarily to the church. The four-second reverberation made this mongrel organ surprisingly successful. It was later rebuilt for another institution.

In 1975 plans began in earnest for a new organ. The original concept had four manuals with a Rückpositiv division. Fundraising and unrelated issues delayed the project, and in a period of high inflation the organ shrank by the month. We finally decided to start over and took the tonal design of the Luther College organ as a starting point. The entire Luther organ can be found within the specification of the First Lutheran organ. One major difference is inclusion of a coupler manual.

This became the flagship demonstration organ for the company, being located just a mile from the shop and in a room with incredible acoustics. What many do not realize is that the asymmetrical design of the organ case is inspired by the brick sculpture on the front wall of the church (the story of Creation). The pipe shades are inspired by the bird figures in that sculpture. The asymmetrical “Family of Man” and the birds are at the top.

Saint Wenceslaus Catholic Church, New Prague, Minnesota, Opus 47, three manuals, 43 ranks

Robert Thompson of nearby Saint Olaf College was consultant for this organ and gave the organ a decidedly French accent, although this is a congregation of Czech descendents. This was the only organ built during my time at the shop with supply house chests, ordered from Laukhuff. Robert Sperling always voiced in a Germanic style. Initially, the Recit 8′ flute sounded like a quintadena. After reworking it with higher cutups and nicks, it was the stop that elicited the most comments from visitors. Sperling thought he had ruined it. The whole time he was revoicing he grumbled that he was turning it into a 1920 Möller Melodia!

First Unitarian Church, Rochester, Minnesota, Opus 49, two manuals (with third coupler manual), 24 ranks

Merrill N. Davis, III, of Rochester was the consultant for this project. Fondly called “The Bell Organ,” the 2′ on the Ripieno division is a Glockenspiel; there is a wind-driven Zimbelstern; the Continuo mixture is a Glockenzimbel, which starts at 2⁄5′ pitch and includes a tierce on every note. The unison on the F above middle C is the F above high C of a 2′ and had to be voiced with a magnifying glass. Like First Lutheran Church, it has a third coupler manual. The casework is walnut, and the Continuo division in Rückpositiv position has no façade.

Saint John’s Lutheran Church, Kasson, Minnesota, Opus 57, two manuals, 29 ranks

Merrill N. Davis, III, was again consultant. Kasson is not far from Rochester. This organ was conceived with a big blockwerk on the Great based on a 16′ Principal with a big mixture. There are two cornets on the Great—a four-rank mounted cornet of flute scale, and a three-rank Sesquialtera of principal scale, along with a dark trumpet. Originally the Swell did not couple to either the Great or Pedal. These couplers have since been added. What started as an unsuccessful 1′ Principal on the Great was changed to 8⁄9′ to add spice to the ensemble and to the two cornets. The organ was originally tuned to Chaumont temperament.

Saint John’s Lutheran Church, Minneapolis, Minnesota, Opus 63, three manuals, 47 ranks

Saint John’s Lutheran Church in south Minneapolis is one of the biggest rebuild projects we undertook. Hillgreen-Lane had rebuilt the previous organ (perhaps a Hall) in 1959 at 32 ranks. Our 1983 rebuild significantly enlarged the organ and made access for tuning and servicing much easier than it had been in the Hillgreen-Lane organ. Many ranks were retained. Much of the Pedal is recycled from the Hillgreen-Lane. A string had been converted into an 8′ Gelind Gedackt by Hillgreen-Lane, but the scale was very small and the caps did not seal. We rescaled it again. We presume it had been Hillgreen-Lane that had soldered two diapasons together end-to-end to make a 16′ Salicional, which was retained. This organ had one of the early multiplex relay systems, this one donated by Dirk Moibroeck of Cincinnati (ICMI).

Union Presbyterian Church, Saint Peter, Minnesota, Opus 64, two manuals, 11 ranks

Though far from a significant organ, Union Presbyterian Church is an example of the smaller all-electric unit organs that were quite successful. Union Church’s acoustics were horribly dry when the organ was designed, but when the chancel was modified for the new organ we discovered a small space with a very warm acoustic. When the organ was first played the room amplified it too much! We dropped the pressure and revoiced everything. For many years this was the location of a well-attended hymn festival, and the organ has often been used with various instruments. A small-scale trumpet was added in later years, and the relay and combination action were recently replaced with current technology. The 4′ Octave, mixture, and trumpet are on the right side near the console. The Bourdon/Rohrflute and 8′ Principal trebles are on the left side behind the choir. The Swell is in the middle behind the grill, with the largest 16′ Subbass pipes (plywood) on its roof. Organist at the time, Charles Eggert, was consultant.

Saint Joseph’s Catholic Cathedral, Sioux Falls, South Dakota, Opus 78, three manuals, 62 ranks

The two largest organs were built after I left, and I have never seen the Sioux Falls organ. Nonetheless, it is a significant instrument in a large and very reverberant space.

Wayzata Community Church, Wayzata, Minnesota, Opus 92, four manuals, 70 ranks

The company’s magnum opus is in a suburb west of Minneapolis. C. Charles Jackson gave funds for it, and Charles Hendrickson’s long friendship with sculptor Paul Granlund at Gustavus Adolphus was the genesis of the sculpture (“Aeneous Aegis”) in the middle of the organ case. For many years this was home to an extensive organ concert series under staff organist, Diana Lee Lucker. Charles attended most of these concerts. Following Diana Lee’s retirement, this series ceased.

Trinity Episcopal Church, Excelsior, Minnesota, Opus 111, two manual, 29 ranks

Trinity Episcopal Church had been home to a five-rank Möller organ (Opus 8026). The new organ was impetus for a complete church remodel project, which is quite successful with movable chairs and hard surfaces. The Hendrickson organ includes pipes from the Möller as well as pipes from a practice organ (Opus 20) built for the University of Wisconsin in Eau Claire that was repurchased. Andreas Hendrickson designed the unusual façade.

Shop stories

The Luther College organ had a flotation system, which Charles developed the summer of 1971. Each iteration of his design resulted in the call to everyone in the shop to come and stand on a piece of plywood to see if it would float with the added weight. We eventually had a winner that was installed on the organ.

The Rochester Unitarian organ was playing in the shop when Jeff Davis came to see it. He did not like the relationship between the 4′ and 2′ of the Continuo division, so a new rank was ordered and the ranks affected were re-racked.

There was a fire at the shop on November 15, 2013, that originated in one of the light fixtures. Even though the majority of the building was left intact, insurance deemed the structure a loss, and a new building was put up in its place. Amazingly, only one wood pipe rank was in the shop at the time. The remainder of that particular project was stored down the hill in the nearby shop warehouse.

Children of the shop

Most organ shops have spinoffs, and Hendrickson’s shop was no exception. Notable among the “children” of the shop is Lynn Dobson, of Dobson Pipe Organ Builders, Ltd., of Lake City, Iowa, founded in 1974. I succeeded Robert Sperling as voicer in 1979 and remained until 1984. My company, Grandall and Engen, LLC, of Maple Grove, Minnesota, has been operating since 1984 and does tuning and enhancements for many clients in the Twin Cities area and western Wisconsin, including a number of universities. The third offshoot is Rob Hoppe, of Robert D. Hoppe & Associates of Algoma, Wisconsin, founded in 1986. He often builds new organs with digital enhancements. Charles’s two sons, Eric and Andreas, took over the business when Charles retired in 2015 and continue today.


Read more about Charles Hendrickson here.

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